Minutes after Robin Gibb’s death, it began — the tweets of misery, the hashtagged mourning, the maudlin aphorisms streaming up and down Facebook walls and across Pinterest boards. The musician’s life was collated and curated by fans and passersby who felt compelled to make sense of it all in 140 characters or less.
“R.I.P. Robin Gibb,” the first wave wrote, acting as virtual Paul Reveres for followers and friends. Next came the people who listened to him in high school, one-upped by the people who lost their virginity to the Bee Gees record they purchased with their first paycheck in high school.
What was presented as genuine emotional loss sometimes looked like competitive grieving — sadness mixed with the performance art of social media. Or as Jacob Silverman witheringly sighed on Jewcy.com, “On Twitter, grief is just another meme.”
If your Facebook feed was free of Gibb adulation, then it might have been nostalgia-bombed by Donna Summer retrospectives, Adam “MCA” Yauch tributes, Levon Helm memories, and Maurice Sendak mash notes. Everyone was sad, so sad. Everyone was everyone’s favorite artist.
In the boomer icon death flood of recent weeks, certain behaviors have emerged, the new rules for mourning online: Sorrow is poignant. Sorrow is public. Sorrow is pithy.
“He finally reached Brooklyn. #RIPMCA,” one Twitter user wrote. (Actually, dozens wrote it or variations on it.)
“Robin Gibb, you’ll be stayin’ alive in my heart.”
“Maurice Sendak has gone where the wild things are,” wrote another hundred or so — it’s convenient when your dead heroes leave behind lyrics or phrases that lend themselves to mortality musings.
If grief is a meme, it’s not a meme only on Twitter. Our need to publicize sadness goes beyond the online realm, which is why Buckingham Palace wheezed with the pollen from flowers left by Princess Diana’s mourners, why Michael Jackson’s tear-stricken fans aimed themselves like homing pigeons toward Neverland. Kurt Cobain died in 1994, and armies of eighth-graders waited for adults to ask why they were wearing black arm bands, just so they could have the satisfaction of rolling their eyes.
In psychology, the behavior is linked to the concept of “basking in reflected glory” — the impulse to share in or take credit for the triumphs of loved ones — the ones we actually know, such as siblings, and the ones we don’t, such as celebrities. “It’s abbreviated ‘BIRG,’ ” Spee Kosloff says. Kosloff, an experimental psychologist at California State University at Fresno, studies the public’s relationship with famous people.
“Celebrities are symbols,” Kosloff says. Symbols of fame, wealth, uniqueness, good hair. “By our association with them, we can BIRG and gain a feeling of cosmic specialness.” When they die, the specialness disappears, so we cling however we can — reminding everyone that we identified with them, understood their writing, listened to the B-side more than all the other Twidiots out there. “It’s inflating your own personal tie to the thing that makes you exceptional.”
The more you grieve, the more special you are.
“I’m so sad that Robin Gibb passed away,” wrote one Twitter user, a student who would not have been born when the Bee Gees were at their peak. “I can’t focus on this lecture I want to go home and cry.”
(The inverse of BIRGing, incidentally, is “cutting off reflected failure” — or CORFing — which explains our need to criticize Charlie Sheen’s drug use or John Edwards’ infidelity. We want to make it clear that those indiscretions had nothing to do with us.)
Perhaps not coincidentally, Kosloff’s other area of expertise is how people grapple with their own mortality. His research has found that people who have just been reminded of their inevitable demise feel more positively about celebrities.
Maybe the reverse is also true: When celebrities die, we become more aware of our ephemeral existence. Everyone dies, even a Bee Gee, and bleating out tweets is so much less about the musicians than it is about us. In one way or another, it always is.
Our natural fixation with celebrities has collided with the Internet-inspired desire to get there before everyone else. (Those hasty “R.I.P.” tweets seem as if they were written by the commenters who ecstatically proclaim themselves “FIRST” in online comment sections, absolving themselves of actually having anything interesting to say.)
These tendencies have collided with social networking’s inherent self-absorption — when used as directed, Facebook becomes a baby book for grown-ups, and users are encouraged to chart their milestones and feelings on a literal timeline. Social scientists go back and forth about whether Facebook makes us self-absorbed or un-self-conscious, insecure or overconfident. At the very least, one could argue that it makes us aware of the fact that undocumented lives are easily forgotten.
“Having something shared to talk about is an important way to build what sociologists call ‘social solidarity,’ ” writes Nathan Jurgenson, a social media theorist and graduate student at the University of Maryland. It’s what used to happen at the water cooler — where nobody cared that much about the weather, but everyone talked about it anyway because it performed a “social grooming function,” Jurgenson says. “It reminds us that we are together in this social group, not alone.”
Online, people don’t talk about the weather because it’s different for each far-flung friend. But we create an online funeral potluck for a dead Beastie Boy in which everyone brings a memory casserole to pass around the table. “We use the death, a shared culturally significant moment, to do this everyday social grooming,” Jurgenson says. “To have something to talk about together.”
But even a dead celebrity can only bind our ties for so long. Within 24 hours — 48, for the ultra-celebrities — social networks return to normal biorhythms. That, more than anything, is a commentary on the contrived nature of online mourning. Real grief can’t be confined to a 24-hour news cycle any more than it can be confined to 140 characters. This Internet grief comes, conquers and quickly leaves.
But before tweets and posts peter out, they occasionally reach levels of arch self-awareness. Observe this tweet by Babe Walker, whose “White Girl Problems” Twitter account often captures the zeitgeist, then frog-marches the zeitgeist to its most ridiculous extreme. On the occasion of Summer’s passing, Walker tweeted:
“In a way, Donna Summer was my mom.”